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Besieged S.F. Examiner Chief Steps Aside

Press: The publisher caused a furor with testimony that he offered the mayor favorable coverage in exchange for backing of newspaper deal. Executive recants as he takes leave of absence.

May 03, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The embattled publisher of the San Francisco Examiner took an indefinite leave Tuesday after testifying in court that he had offered to trade favorable news coverage of Mayor Willie Brown for the mayor's support of Hearst Corp.'s purchase of the rival Chronicle.

Timothy White stepped aside amid newsroom tumult and backpedaling at Hearst Corp. over his comments a day earlier during an antitrust trial challenging the $660-million newspaper sale.

Hearst Corp. issued statements Tuesday contending that the conversation with Brown described by White never happened--and if it did happen, violated company policy.

"The content of news and editorial pages may not be negotiated or compromised in any way," Hearst officials said in a statement. "Hearst is looking into the matter and will take further action as appropriate."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 6, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Examiner publisher--San Francisco Examiner Publisher Tim White testified in federal court that he offered favorable editorials, rather than news coverage, to Mayor Willie Brown for the politician's support of Hearst Corp.'s purchase of the rival Chronicle. A Times story Wednesday incorrectly characterized White's comments.

The company also issued a statement from White recanting his own statements in court. White said he was "tired and confused" during testimony. Hearst said the publisher "confirmed that there was no negotiation of press coverage of any kind" with Brown.

The mayor could not be reached for comment.

Examiner staffers expressed dismay over the latest turn of events at the newspaper, which has been whipsawed since Hearst announced plans last summer to purchase the Chronicle and fold the Examiner. White is well-liked by the staff.

"We're feeling sadness and a little bit of bewilderment at the events," said Jim Finefrock, head of the Examiner editorial page. "There's a widespread sense of disappointment for Tim White. He's an awfully good guy and supportive publisher. This was just a real anomaly, something that's not characteristic of him at all."

Finefrock posted a statement in a staff computer basket saying that White "never asked me to go easy on Willie Brown or anyone else on our editorial page." He added that "our editorial policy has been, and is, to place Brown and other politicians under tough scrutiny and to write about them without fear or favor."

Keay Davidson, the Examiner's science writer, said staffers are "all trying hard not to jump to conclusions." Davidson said many reporters hope White was indeed confused and misspoke when he testified.

"But if it turns out he did anything untoward," Davidson said, "then in my strictly personal opinion he should resign."

At the rival Chronicle, dozens of staffers signed a petition condemning White's actions and demanding a full accounting.

White's testimony overshadowed the opening of the trial of a lawsuit seeking to prevent Hearst from buying the Chronicle. Clint Reilly, a prominent political consultant and businessman, has challenged the sale, contending that the acquisition of California's second-largest newspaper would give Hearst an illegal monopoly, despite approval of the sale by the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.

Department approval was required for the termination of the two newspapers' joint operating agreement--a combination of business operations and sharing of profits--which started in 1965 and was scheduled to run through 2005.

An unsuccessful bidder for the Examiner, Reilly contends that Hearst's agreement to give its flagship newspaper to local publisher Ted Fang, along with a $66-million subsidy over three years, is designed to fail quickly and leave the city with a single newspaper.

White, who became the Examiner's editor and publisher in January 1999, testified Monday that he met with Brown on Aug. 30. The mayor, then in the middle of a reelection campaign in which Reilly was running against him, had often complained about Examiner coverage and had opposed the Chronicle sale, announced Aug. 6.

White said he offered Brown "more favorable treatment" in the Examiner's editorial pages if he supported the sale.

In an e-mail sent afterward to the head of Hearst's newspaper division, read in court, White said, "I asked Willie how I was going to justify to my superiors in New York wanting to support him and cooperate with him when he was seeming to go out of his way to make our lives difficult."

Brown replied that he had written to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno objecting to the sale only to "placate the Board of Supervisors and 'other constituents,"' White said in the e-mail.

Another e-mail, sent by White a week before the purchase was publicly announced, described an earlier meeting with Brown at which White "pitched him extensively for his support of our acquisition of the Chronicle." White said Brown suggested that Hearst settle a long-standing lawsuit by Fang's family, the mayor's political allies.

After the Aug. 30 lunch meeting, Brown worked behind the scenes to support the Examiner sale to the Fang family, which publishes the local free-distribution Independent and Asian Week papers.

Hearst officials quoted White as saying, "I was tired and confused by the question. The implication of my answer that the pages of The Examiner can be influenced, under any circumstances, is absurd."

Executive editor Phil Bronstein, who also attended the luncheon, "states emphatically that there were no negotiations of press coverage of any kind," Hearst said.

White's duties were assumed Tuesday by George B. Irish, president of Hearst newspapers. Bronstein will continue to oversee the newspaper.

*

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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